Grand Designs Australia: Eco House

October 26, 2015

Set into a Hunter Valley hillside, this unique mud-brick abode is an extraordinary display of one man’s dedication to all things eco

When Kim Torma, as an eager 25 year old, set out to build his own home, he literally did so; designing and building his one-bedroom eco-friendly mud-brick house almost entirely on his own for more than five years.

Situated on 100 acres in Broke in the Hunter Valley, NSW, this unique adobe house is surrounded by verdant bushland and has tranquil views over the area’s rolling green hills, dotted with farms, olive groves and vineyards.

With these spectacular natural surrounds, Kim set out to create something that was low budget, sustainable and made using the materials he had around him.

The result is a unique home that embraces nature, showcases excellent design and handiwork and, together with its warm, earthy interiors, is a place filled with character.

Impressively, Kim was the project’s solo builder and interior designer, with the architect work being a collaboration between him and Brian Woodward from Earthways.

The ambient 95m² home features a loft bedroom and open-plan room, which can also serve as a second bedroom, a lounge area, dining area attached to the kitchen, a combined laundry and pantry and one bathroom.

Rather than working to a deadline, this home has been well built and well thought out, with careful consideration.

On the surface, it has a simplistic, down-to-earth feel with its adobe style, ochre colouring and use of timber.

Scratch beneath the surface and you learn of just how special this house is.
With its rustic aesthetic and thermal qualities, Kim decided to use mud-brick for his project.

The natural ochre colour of the mud he used has given the home its wonderful mustard hue and Kim says he particularly likes the warmth of this material along with the effect of the straw mixed together with the mud to make the bricks.

A paved floor was also used for its thermal qualities and in winter, the sun streams 6m into the back of the home and warms the bricks and pavers. As the ambient temperature falls during the night, the heat from the bricks is released into the house.

Combined with the cosy open fireplace, there is more than enough warmth. An external vent feeds into the fireplace, feeding the fire and minimising back draft.

The house is kept cool during summer thanks to the pitch and positioning of its eaves and windows. In keeping with the eco-friendly considerations, the positioning of the windows means that, irrespective of the direction of the breeze, the house has good cross ventilation.

The feel with this house is that it is at one with nature, as though all the elements from the earth below and the surrounding trees have come together to create this special home, made in its own unique way, using unique materials. And it was an impressive exercise in design on Kim’s part too.

Kim was inspired by the architects Ken Woolley, and his use of timber and pitched roofs; Bruce Rickard, and the way he used light and timber; and Brian Woodward, who only designed in mud brick. He was also inspired by the simplicity of Amish designs.

Sustainability is at the forefront of the house’s elements and Kim used timbers that are termite resistant – Cyprus pine, blackbutt and turpentine. A 10Kw solar array in the bottom paddock has panels that track the sun for maximum efficiency.

The home’s interior was created by Kim, too, and continues the back-to-nature theme with a stamp of individuality.

Natural furnishings in dark-brown leather, ochre colours, timber and animal rugs enhance the atmosphere and although furnishing is kept fairly minimal, there is enough to give character and warmth.

This warmth was important to Kim and he says he wanted an uplifting atmosphere. “The colour and the high ceilings achieved this, I think,” he says.

“The red of the turpentine and the blackbutt along with the white gyprock walls were the only three colours that have been used, as I was trying to keep the palette as simple as possible.”

Now married with three children, Kim lives in Sydney and owns one half of design business Axolotl. These days, this serene, sustainable retreat is used as a holiday home.

He showed design talent and flair from an early age, it seems, and managed to create the feeling of lightness and spaciousness despite building a “modest” home.

Mud brick can be a heavy and dark material for a house but, with high ceilings and a loft style, plus well-positioned windows, this property has managed to avoid this feeling. Kim says this is his favourite part of the space, “plus how the house is moulded into the hillside.”

Building this eco abode just the way he wanted wasn’t always going to be easy. “It took eight months of stomping mud just to make the bricks alone,” says Kim who admits he had a “grand vision of creating this house without any outside assistance.”

Well, he did have a little help from some friends.

“It was a 36°C day and I organised a party for my friends. There was a small catch: it was a ‘mud-brick-moving party’,” Kim recalls. “We formed a conga line and passed approximately 4000 bricks from the lower dam up the hill to the building site from 7am till 7pm… with a party afterwards.”

Building solo means having to come up with some interesting ways of getting things done and there were a few near misses says Kim, one of which involved a mud-brick-laden ute, a hand brake and a hill. Fortunately, his newly constructed brick wall wasn’t damaged.

Creating those beautiful high ceilings was tricky without mechanical equipment too, says Kim. He recalls making a tripod out of 7m bush poles to lift the ridge beams using a block and tackle to hoist them up and a cast-iron bath full of water as a counter weight.

Another time, Kim’s handmade pulley-system’s ropes snapped, sending a massive ridge beam careering toward his house. “It stopped short by digging into the ground just before impact.”

This handmade home really is something special.

Exemplifying all that good, clever design should, it has character and heart, was made with the environment in mind and in such a way that didn’t compromise an easy-on-the-eye aesthetic.

Words Emma Wheaton / Photography Mark Donaldson
From Grand Designs Australia magazine Vol. 3 No. 1

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